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This year’s annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies had popular culture as its central theme. At the opening, speakers pointed to the apparent disconnect between the strong tradition of popular-culture scholarship in German American studies and the fact that, until this year’s 66th meeting, popular culture had never been the central theme.
My colleagues Katharina Gerund and Mareike Spychala invited me to speak in the panel “Images of War: Popular Culture as Militainment.” The panel was a good opportunity to get together with colleagues in the field of military life writing and military culture research. In German American studies, quite a few thesis projects addressed topics such as post-9/11 war memoirs, fiction, milblogs, or focused on aspects such as gender in first-person war narratives. More projects are currently underway.
Inspired by discussions on the proliferation of loaded terms such as “warrior” at earlier GAAS meetings, I drew on research for my recently published book to take a closer look at terminology and concepts. I presented examples from military parlance and institutions (e.g. the Soldier’s Creed, Warrior Transition Units), self-help books, and civic activism, where the term “warrior” has been fashionable since the early 2000s.
Although usage of the term “warrior” for US military personnel seems ubiquitous, diverse protagonists argue against its use and insist on calling military personnel “soldiers.” I cited a few examples of criticism from folks who believe that an association with “warriors” and warrior culture diminishes the emphasis on professionalism in the US military. These arguments, however, often employ an ethnocentric, ahistoric, sometimes even racist understanding of “warriors” in that historical warriors are portrayed as undisciplined, bloodthirsty glory hounds. This notion goes hand in glove with the popular understanding and usage of “tribal,” i.e. the notion that a ‘tribal’ group derives its identity from hatred and the resulting violence against any and all outsiders. Historical examples for such negative portrayals of ‘warriors’ are often ancient Greeks, medieval knights, or Indigenous groups.
In contrast, a lot of the activist scholarship and non-fiction I analyzed for Ceremonial Storytelling frequently refers to Native American warrior traditions and, thus, employs a positivist representation of ‘warriors,’ mainly through the perspective of social relationships. I discussed examples such as Sebastian Junger’s Tribe and Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return to argue that these social activists see psychological war injury and veterans’ reintegration problems as signs of a social crisis in US society, rather than as mere individual afflictions. They seek inspiration and role models from the social responsibilities between Indigenous warriors and their communities (and are sometimes dismissed as “primitivism fantas[ies]” for that reason). Applying a social perspective to the concept of the warrior, these activist scholars and writers hope to develop civic ceremonies, such as town hall meetings with veterans and civilians on Memorial Day, to mend civil-military relationships and to promote veteran reintegration. In their understanding, a warrior is not a bloodthirsty individualist, but someone who sacrifices personal interest for the benefit of the group, and they call upon US civil society to acknowledge its responsibility for soldiers in return.
My fellow panelists presented work on the “metonymic war veteran” in cultural expressions such as Black Panther (David F. Eisler), on the soldier group as a symbol for US society in combat films such as Air Force and Full Metal Jacket (Martin Holtz), on the depiction of child soldiers in graphic novels (Tatiana Prorokova), and on the representations of violence and diversity in the children’s TV show Liberty’s Kids on PBS (Carsten Junker).
In the context of my new job, I got involved in an international research project titled “Curating (Post)Socialist Environments” about museum work and (art) history in Eastern Europe, and how people in Eastern European countries built, organized, created, refined – i.e., curated – exhibitions but also urban landscapes and private homes.
The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the Leipzig museum during the GDR, especially the museum’s relationship with diverse regional clubs of Indian hobbyists. I spent a few weeks at the museum library and archives to study old yearbooks, visitor’s books, documents, and exhibition scripts. In addition, I did a survey of references to Native Americans in East German TV shows from news to kids’ shows to ethnographic documentaries at Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German TV and Radio Archive) and looked at reports and documents on cultural and education policy at the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive).
All this generated more than enough material for several articles, and there are still documents to be perused. I finished the manuscript for an article that will be part of the research group’s forthcoming anthology titled Curating (Post)Socialist Environments (release in April 2021).
Last week, I attended the conference “Museums in the GDR” in Rostock, organized by the Richard-Schöne-Gesellschaft für Museumsgeschichte and the “Kunsthalle Rostock.” The conference also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kunsthalle in Rostock, one of the very few museums constructed in East Germany 1949-90.
The conference addresses “questions regarding the organizational, political, and aesthetic development of museums in the GDR, provide answers, and debate[d] blank spaces in previous research.”
“[The meeting] looks into personal, cultural, and intellectual continuities of (East) German museum policy since the Kaiser era to identify unique developments in GDR museum culture, and to discuss international relations, not only with the Eastern Bloc but also the competition with West Germany.” (from the conference press release)
My own contribution introduced some Indian hobby clubs, pointing to Indianthusiast continuities since the 19th century. I emphasized that the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde and local hobby clubs built their relationship for mutual benefit: On the one hand, hobbyists approached the museum to gain reliable resources about Native Americans. They learned about exhibition concepts and practices, and sometimes could use the museum as a platform to present their own activities and skills to the public.
On the other hand, the museum fulfilled its mandate to serve as a link between the state’s ideological directives on education and culture, scholarship, and the populace. Supporting the hobbyists’ amateur ethnography was a welcome opportunity for the museum to implement the state’s doctrine of popular education (especially the so-called “Bitterfelder Weg”) and to gain further insight into the museum’s own collection from the hobbyists’ growing practical experience with reconstructing material culture.
By employing the term “experimental ethnography,” I argue that both the hobbyists (who had to justify their work with state officials to obtain permits for club activities) and the museum (which was supposed to support youth culture and non-professional interests) portrayed their mutual activities as serious work. Framing their activities as amateur research and exhibitions with a political motivation (anti-imperialist solidarity) apparently could demonstrate to the state that hobbyism went beyond mere horseplay, that hobbyists were not ‘just playing Indian.’
In May 2015, I attended a conference on the history of German perceptions of the US since 1945 in Tutzing. My presentation explored how nationalist and racist tropes of the Nazi era utilized Native American imagery and historical comparison, and how these arguments were adapted among neo-Nazis and right-wing populists in Germany to stoke nativist sentiment during the current refugee crisis. In the following months, I developed a series of blog posts on this issue:
Earlier this month, my colleague Volker Benkert published the German-language conference collection, titled Feinde, Freunde, Fremde?…. My contribution further develops ideas laid out in these early blog posts. Other contributions cover transatlantic comparative analyses of genocide, German-American cultural transfer, perspectives on the US in East and West Germany during the Cold War, and German-American relations until today.
Initially, I had intended the series on Indian imagery in German nativism and immigration on this blog to be a minor spin-off following my dissertation research. Recent events, such as the growing influx of refugees since 2014, the rise of nationalist, nativist, and racist political organizations, and their increasing visibility in public discourse, however, merit more deeper explorations of the issue. It seems that protagonists in these public debates not only recycle Indian imagery and argumentation from the Nazi era, but that growing exchange and interrelation among similar political currents across Europe also shares and disseminates related imagery, such as references to Native Americans and Indigeneity.
I have been invited to the 6th Central German Conference on the History of Medicine and Science at the College of Medicine at Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg this week. The conference featured a number of presentations on the history of Halle’s university and affiliated research institutions, and several on the history of psychiatry in (central) Germany.
My talk presented a brief overview on my current research project, particularly the social-activist stance in public discourse on war experience, veterans’ issues, and PTSD in US civil society. Writing this, I realize how much the project has expanded in recent years: Initially, I described it as an analysis of milblogs, read through the lens of Indigenous warrior traditions. Today, with the book manuscript almost completed, I find that milblogs comprise only one among many source types informing the project, and that its discussion covers research interests and methodology from literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, anthropology, cultural and medical history, and psychology.
In Halle, I focused on notions of social therapy and cultural transfer in public discourse about PTSD and military psychology since Vietnam. In particular, I addressed how the frequent reference to Native American traditions among civic activists helped promote social therapy, alternative medicine, and the notion of ritual as a therapeutic tool in US psychology, psychiatry, and social work on veterans’ issues.
What I found fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to compare and contextualize: Many presentations also touched upon the role of social issues in German psychiatric history, notably the competition between biological and social approaches after 1945. Apparently, social perspectives in psychiatry coming from the US and the UK (e.g. discussing the origin of psychoses) heavily influenced public and academic debates in post-war West Germany. Eventually, these social perspectives helped pass legislation that made victims of Nazi persecution eligible for financial compensation – dominant biological explanations (e.g. the assumption that genetic predispositions were the sole root of psychoses) had prevented such compensation for years after the war.
It was striking to compare the interweaving of psychological/psychiatric research, public debates, and contemporary social problems in post-war Germany with the public debates on war-related psychological injuries and civil-military relationships in the US, and once more realize the transatlantic dimension of such public debates. I hope that I can present further thoughts and evolving ideas in more posts during the coming weeks to accompany the completion of my manuscript.
In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.
As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.
In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.
I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might have―on one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.
The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.
A few days ago, I attended this year’s meeting of historians in the GAAS in Tutzing at Lake Starnberg, southwest of Munich. The meeting’s central theme was “Auto/Biographies in American History,” which gave me an opportunity to look at milblogs from a perspective of autobiographical writing.
I had worked through a number of books on Anglo Saxon war diaries and memoirs early last year, among them Samuel Hynes’s The Soldier’s Tale. I enjoyed the way Hynes discusses various war narratives’ medium and genre specifics; he develops a fascinating overview of how personal war narratives interrelate with other genres, such as historiography, travel writing, and autobiography. His observations on commonalities and differences between these text types and personal war narratives make Hynes’s work fruitful material for teaching: It explicitly invites students to engage in source criticism, e.g., by addressing that, while both travel writing and war narratives have a ‘touristic’ perspective in that they discuss foreign and exotic places and peoples, war narratives depict the radical cognitive gap between civilian and war experience, focusing on the battlefield as an “anti-landscape,” and, thus, revealing that war “is not a place we could travel to” (7-8).
However, Hynes’s approach seems too narrow to do justice to the various forms of personal war narratives. He argues that war narratives “are by their nature retrospective. To perceive the changes that war has made in a man requires the passage of time and the establishment of distance from the remembered self” (4). In this and similar statements, Hynes favors the memoir over the diary or the letter as a source on personal war experience, positing that a soldier-author does not have time to reflect on war experience during the war itself and, more importantly, that it needs a post-war self to bring memories in order and create a coherent narrative of one’s war.
I’ve found this emphasis on an author’s temporal distance to the actual experience of war to be problematic and used my presentation at Tutzing to discuss how milblogs, especially their technological specifics and the corresponding cultural practices of public discourse between bloggers and audience, invite and nurture dialog among soldiers and civilians and, thus, facilitate reflection on the impact of war on the self even during deployment. According to Hynes, war narratives―being a form of conversion literature―have autobiographic elements but, unlike autobiographies, they do not depict “continuous lives” and focus on war as an interruption. Veteran (memoir) authors look back on their old war selves as strangers: “For everyone except career soldiers, military service is a kind of exile from one’s own real life, a dislocation of the familiar that the mind preserves as life in another world” (7-8). However, it is worthwhile to study texts focusing on this interruption as they reveal that, indeed, reflection takes place in the war zone and that these texts convey fruitful information for historians, and literary and cultural studies scholars, as well as psychologists.
A researcher’s focus on milblogs written during deployment can help explore the causes and effects of the “dislocation of the familiar” as they happen, and it illustrates the soldiers’ and civilians’ discourse on these extreme circumstances while the soldier is still embroiled in the war. As historical sources, memoirs are limited because, although their authors had time to reflect on their old war selves, they might depict selective or distorted memories, and will probably have been influenced by collective memory, i.e., by the public, interpretation of that war shaped by media and the arts. While milbloggers may not have had much time to sort out and come to terms with their experience yet, their interaction with their audience provides a public forum for reflection; this exchange, in addition to depicting personal experience, illustrates how collective memory of that event is being constructed.
Public exchange on personal war experience has also begun to play a larger role in psychology in recent years. The growing focus on narrative in psychology, especially on a narrator’s interaction with a supportive and responsive audience, reveals that reflection and meaning-making may take place through narrating experience and bearing witness. Recent psychological works on war stress and PTSD suggest that research emphasis on personal war narratives may even help integrate the frequently opposed branches of cognitive/neuro-psychology and experimental social psychology. Milblogs and other social media demonstrate the role of reflection and meaning-making through social support, because they facilitate exchange between deployed soldiers and civil society.
In addition, working with methods and concepts from popular culture studies, e.g., fandom studies, allows us to see milblogs as a joint effort between soldier-authors and a (mostly) civilian audience to make meaning of war experience and negotiate one’s place in US society, that is, to constitute community in an effort to create a joint narrative (for a detailed discussion, see my article “Keep that Fan Mail Coming”). Reflections on individual as well as collective impacts of war are part and parcel of the exchanges in milblogs. As such, these public debates and the social support for soldiers through interactive communication are not a new phenomenon. While Web 2.0 provides the technology to engage in such exchanges on a global scale and in almost synchronous communication (minimal time delay between narrative and response), such public debates were already observed during the US Civil War, when soldiers’ letters were widely distributed among home communities and frequently republished by local newspapers.
Flagstaff Symposium Tackles Sensitive Issues: Comparing Genocide and Settler Colonialism in the Nazi East and the American West
Between 11-13 October, I was invited to a symposium titled “Colonial Conquest in the Nazi East and the American West” at Northern Arizona University’s Martin Springer Institute, Flagstaff. The symposium was part of a larger collaborative effort in comparative genocide studies that I had been introduced to during my lecture tour last fall.
I was invited to present my work on Nazi appropriations of German Indianthusiasm, a great opportunity to promote the recent monograph. Beyond my initial research focus, it was fascinating to touch base again with current work in military history of World War II, social science approaches to mass violence, and Native American studies. As the organizers put it aptly during the introduction to the event – the symposium strove to discuss benefits, concerns, and questions about bringing together vastly different topics and methodological approaches that often seem so self-contained that they might even be considered “disciplinary silos.”
Political considerations, sensibilities, and activist interests are a major concern that academics should take into account when discussing genocide, in this case, comparing the Holocaust and Nazi occupation in Poland and the Soviet Union with the settlement of the North American continent, when comparing the ideologies of Lebensraum im Osten (living space in the East) with Manifest Destiny and the horrendous effects these ideologies and their implementations had on affected peoples. Comparing these historical phenomena entails the danger of establishing “hierarchies of suffering” that would devalue the suffering of some victims of colonialism and mass atrocity, and grossly insult the memory of some survivors and descendants of victims. Being familiar with these activist perspectives both from public discourse and scholarship in postwar/post-reunification Germany, and from my work in Native American studies and my acquaintance with Indigenous political activists, I was excited about the debates. Fortunately, these political concerns caused all participants to approach this bringing together of, not only disciplinary silos but also political powder kegs, with great transdisciplinary and transcultural care and sensitivity,
In disciplinary terms, I was once more amazed how wide the field of Holocaust studies/ history of Nazi Germany and World War Two is―from my own work, I felt well-versed in the field of Nazi media and propaganda, especially regarding Indianthusiasm, and nationalist/völkisch/Nazi ideology. However, it can be daunting to learn about author’s names and case studies in―often only slightly different―fields of interest, all coming with their respective scholarly networks, debates, academic trenches, historiographical infighting, annual meetings, and the like.
What struck me in particular about the meeting was how differently the question of comparing the Nazi East and the American West can be approached, and how these approaches will produce vastly different, often contradictory results and representations of these results. The question of genocide in the Nazi East and the American West is not merely a matter of debating intent and effect. It must consider and distinguish between ideology, public discourse, corresponding formulations of state policy, propaganda (domestic and foreign), and finally, observations on how the policies were implemented on the micro-level: by state agents, i.e., local commanders who must strike a balance between directives and improvisation as required by the moment, and by non-state agents, i.e., settlers and settler militias. These micro-level perspectives often enough requires empirical case studies whose results might contradict any of the above criteria and make comparison and generalizations between the Nazi East and the American West exceedingly difficult.
One prime example might be the oft-cited references Hitler made to the Euro-American conquest of the West when discussing his plans for the Nazi East. We know about these references from documentations of his Table Talks and from his Second Book, but that does not automatically mean that the Nazis used the Frontier as a role model in their planning for the east, that they publicly promoted any such parallels in their propaganda, that they issued corresponding directives, or that local commanders and administrators made (or were made aware of) any such comparisons when implementing these policies on the ground.
I have seen a number of documents in which Nazi-era German cultural anthropologists discussed US-Indian policy, such as the detrimental effects of forced relocation during the Trail of Tears, and argued that future German colonies in Africa should thus avoid massive relocation and cultural imperialism directed at Indigenous peoples, but I cannot speak to whether or not there were actual plans to that effect in Africa. Neither can I speak to the impact such comparisons actually had on the plans for starvation and relocation of Slavic peoples in the Nazi East. I am looking forward to doing more research into German government documents on these issues one day, and am currently not aware of any previous―and detailed―works focusing on American role models for the Nazi East. Without detailed knowledge of such documents, plans, and directives, Hitler’s remarks on using America’s westward expansion as a role model for the Nazi East are of limited value, for the man had a lot to say about everything in his ramblings.
To use a more concrete example of the complexities of comparison from my own work, consider the contradictions between domestic and foreign propaganda: As Kenneth Townsend, Jere Franco and others have pointed out in their works, the Nazis operationalized US groups, such as the German American Bund, to attack the “Indian New Deal” as the Roosevelt Administration’s covert attempt to install Communism in America: the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act, or Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), ended the policy of allotting tracts of land to individual Native families since the 1887 Dawes Act, reinstating communal ownership of land, and revoking some of the repressive measures against native religions and cultural practices. Communal ownership of land, in the arguments of the Nazi-sponsored German American Bund, symbolized Communist collectives and gulags.
Back in Germany, however, the Nazis hailed the IRA as the Americans’ (belated) acknowledgment of inherent racial idiosyncrasies: since all peoples, according to racial ideology, came with inherent group character traits determined by blood and by their natural environment (hence, blood-and-soil ideology), trying to impose alien culture on a group would inevitably lead to that group’s demise. The Nazis argued at home that Americans had finally stepped away from trying to turn ‘Indians’ (who, supposedly, must roam, hunt, or ranch livestock by virtue of their biological heritage) into yeoman farmers, because this practice of cultural imperialism destroyed their culture and peoplehood. US-Indian policy in this regard was praised as good because it acknowledged racial difference and (seemingly) supported racial segregation, which the Nazis quickly exploited to ‘prove’ their own Nuremberg laws on racial segregation as necessary and ‘natural’ measures (i.e., the exclusion of Jews and other unwanted groups from the ‘community of the people’).
So, the same legal measures of the IRA were denounced as Communist in the US and praised as benevolent, racially sensible protection of peoplehood at home. In many other aspects, the comparison of the Nazi East and the American West raised more questions than it helps answer. Still, the symposium did great work to address the complexities and pitfalls and thus helped to develop more meaningful comparative approaches to genocide.
The 62nd annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies convened in Bonn from 28-31 May. The conference topic “Knowledge Landscapes North America” gave me the opportunity to look at my milblog and PTSD research interest from a historiographical perspective. Working with sources on the history of PTSD to support my take on milblogs as ceremonial war narrations that conduct both cultural work and have a therapeutic effect, I became more and more interested in scholarly debates on PTSD and its constructedness in recent years.
My Tübingen colleague Axel Jansen and I organized the Workshop “Contested Science” to discuss how biology and biomedicine became the most visible sciences in public discourse after World War II. The contributions focused on very unique case studies but communicated well with each other, highlighting similar arguments, discourse patterns, and problems. Michael Hochgeschwender (LMU Munich) provided an intriguing theological background for Catholic Roman Church standpoints on issues such as abortion, Stephen Mawdsley (Cambridge) presented his research on the US youth campaign for the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 60s, and Axel Jansen discussed different approaches to and regulations on stem cell research in the US, the UK, and Germany.
After my presentation at the American Indian Workshop in March had scrutinized the clinical aspects and mental health care policies for Native American veterans, last week’s talk looked into activist PTSD scholarship during Vietnam. I have searched for social-support approaches to PTSD to compare with Native American traditions since the inception of this project, and I have been fascinated by how diverse research and therapeutic approaches have been since Vietnam. This presentation was thus a great opportunity to contextualize social-support approaches with a political interest to critically discuss the relationship between civil society and the military among both segments of the public and some researchers.
Some therapies and research schools neglect social issues and, instead, focus entirely on neurobiology or stress levels in their research and therapy. It seems as if they are not even aware of alternative methods (or that they discard them as irrelevant). In some therapy scenarios, there seems to be a mix-and-match situation: clients are sent to one therapy after another until something finally works, and this might be biomedicine now, hypnosis next, and alternative therapies like outdoors, guide dogs, or narrative/creative therapy after that.
Some scholar-therapists (e.g., Jonathan Shay, Ed Tick), regardless if they refer to anti-war activist scholars of the 1970s, argue that social support is necessary for successful veteran reintegration and that the social contract between civil society and its soldiers requires civilians to acknowledge and assume social responsibilities after the soldiers’ return. It is intriguing to see how many protagonists of this approach refer to Native American traditions of communalism and ceremonialism in this regard, a reference that initially piqued my interest in reading milblogs as forms of ceremonial storytelling in which civilians and soldiers discuss war experience and thus, construct meaning in a mutual negotiation of the social contract.
“Indians Couldn’t Stop Immigration” (Part I): Indian Imagery as a Role Model for German Nationalism, Then and Now
One of the many exciting results of last year’s research and lecture tour through the Southwest and California was the networking with a host of scholars in history and Native American studies. Many of the discussions and meetings led to further collaboration. Last week’s symposium at the Akademie für Politische Bildung in Tutzing, Bavaria, was one such project. Fellow historian Volker Benkert from Arizona State University invited me to participate in this meeting titled “Freunde, Feinde, Fremde? Deutsche Perspektiven auf die USA seit 1945.”
The APB was founded by the state of Bavaria in 1957 to promote political education and thus strengthen democratic practice in Bavaria. It offers space for academic meetings and public events. It has hosted a number of annual meetings of historians in the German Association for American Studies, so I have been visiting a few times already. Its location directly adjacent to Lake Starnberg (the fifth-largest in Germany) makes it an ideal place to combine work and recreation.
The symposium gathered scholars in history, political sciences, and literature to discuss German-American relations since the end of World War II. Presentations reflected on the ups and downs in the relationship and investigated historical and cultural factors influencing how Germans perceive, and have perceived, America.
In my presentation, I discussed German self-perception via the notions of Indigeneity and nationalism that were major issues for my dissertation. Initially, I had planned to present a broad overview on how German Indianthusiasm shaped German perceptions of the US as a “common enemy” of Germans and Native Americans, but also as a place of yearning, before and after 1945. Yet, looking for more recent examples of how Indian imagery serves to portray the US in German pop culture, I focused on notions of national identity. Nationalism being my chief approach for the dissertation, I found numerous examples of nationalist and völkisch thinking in Indian images even after World War II.
“Völkisch” means notions of peoplehood based on essentialist perceptions of national identity: the idea that character traits and one’s sense of belonging are determined by blood and by the natural environment. Völkisch thought is, thus, a basis for blood-and-soil ideology. If group identity is determined by blood, then it is almost impossible to come to “belong” as an outsider (or as an immigrant, for that matter). Unlike the tradition of American identity that allows for immigrants to become Americans through assimilation/integration, völkisch thought would deny the possibility of someone ‘learning’ to be a German and, being determined by blood, ‘German culture’ is perceived to be inherent in peoplehood, so it cannot be learned or shared with other peoples, either. This notion, of course, breeds xenophobia and racism.
I would argue that part of this philosophy can still be seen in the current term “people with a migration background” (Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund), employed to be more politically correct than “foreigner/alien” (Ausländer)―it nevertheless states that the depicted person, their parent or grandparent generation, was not born a German, and thus the following generations bear the taint of otherness. Traces of it are also still present in the ongoing legislation ruling that, even when born in Germany, you are not automatically a German citizen if born to immigrant parents.
In my work on Indianthusiasm and Nazi ideology, I have discussed how German nationalists and national socialists used these notions to say that Americans have destroyed Native American culture (if it cannot be shared, it can also not adapt, and thus peoplehood must perish if it encounters too much pressure/influence from outside). Note that the argument is about one overall Native―that is, “racial”―culture, which allows for understanding the colonial conflict as a race war between ‘red’ and ‘white.’
Nazis argued that American cultural imperialism threatened German culture during the early 20th century, as well, facilitating an image of Germans and Native Americans as fellow victims of American cultural imperialism. In addition, they compared and likened frontier massacres with the Anglo-American bombing campaign against German cities in WWII as examples of American “roguishness” and “inherent rowdyism.”
Looking for recent examples of such völkisch anti-American argumentation, I encountered debates on immigration in Germany. Conservatives, neo-Nazis, and, most recently, proponents of the anti-Islamic so-called PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) have referred to Native Americans as examples of how Germans, if they didn’t stop immigration, would end up “like the Indians”―living on reservations, being strangers on their own land, and having their culture destroyed by invading waves of strangers―in the völkisch sense, of ‘the other,’ of those who don’t belong because they are alien and cannot become ‘like us.’ Being ‘us,’ after all, cannot be learned in this reading of peoplehood, you have to be born into it.
One example was a tweet from a county representative of the new political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), using this photograph of Sitting Bull to state “The Indians could not stop immigration. Now they live on reservations.” This summer 2014 tweet comments that, if immigration into Germany continues, Germans will end up being strangers in their own country in the same way.
An even worse example is a YouTube clip featuring the leading figure of the Green Party, Claudia Roth, who encounters a (stereotypically clad) Cherokee “exchange student” in Berlin. Offering her German citizenship on the spot (and thus indicating that the Greens will naturalize any foreigner for the sake of multiculturalism), Roth learns that the Cherokee girl intends to go back home. The girl then tells Roth, who inquires about her experience as an ethnic minority, that her people had once lived by themselves and in peace when strangers appeared on their shores. Her leaders (symbolized by Sitting Bull again, curiously) initially invite the strangers in because they like multiculturalism. As the newcomers multiply, the leaders (i.e., Sitting Bull) argue that the newcomers have not yet been integrated into Native culture well, and that Natives should adapt. This is a current argument in German society, with some conservatives and most on the right wing claiming that immigrants should adapt to German Leitkultur (leading, or guiding culture) and claiming that liberals (represented here by Roth) would rather have Germans abandon their Germanness than demand that immigrants assimilate. Leitkultur suggests that Germanness can be learned, after all. The problem with this is that, for most of these arguments, even if the immigrants tried to “learn Germanness” by assimilating, they would still be subject to racism: if you have dark skin, you will be considered a stranger, no matter if your Bavarian dialect is your first language and you can recite the entire first part of Goethe’s Faust from memory.
When the young warriors in the Cherokee girl’s story are finally fed up and take a stand, it is too late and the Natives are massacred and pushed off of their land to Oklahoma. Here we have the motif of standing up to your traitorous leaders to protect your people that is en vogue among many neo-Nazis. Interestingly, the Cherokee girl repeatedly argues that Cherokee want to be “among ourselves” which is why she says “we recently expelled the blacks” (the Cherokee Freedmen) from the tribe. Again, to be “among ourselves” means that “the other” does not belong simply on the grounds of their, quasi species-specific, otherness.
At this point, the Roth character angrily intercepts and accuses the Cherokee girl of racism for expelling blacks. Eventually, Roth summons a ”black bloc” antifascist militant (she actually calls for “Antifa-Schutzstaffel”―a clear reference to the SS and to many conservatives’ claim that antifascists/antiracists are the same as Nazis) and has him beat up the Cherokee girl for being a racist. As the beating goes on, Roth concludes: “We antifascists are the most tolerant people there are, but if someone disagrees with us, the fun is over. You got that, damn Indian rabble?”
In this clip, the Cherokee are portrayed as righteously xenophobic racists who, simply wanting to be “among ourselves,” suffer first from Euro-American immigration/colonization and then from the presence of African Americans. They expel African Americans from the tribe because anybody qualifying as “not us,” as “the other,” should stay out simply because their “otherness” is inherent and irreconcilable, meaning: cultures don’t mix without conflict. The entire story promotes this stance as a defensive, protective measure, apparently proven right by the dreadful history of frontier conflict. The xenophobic rationale for the German context behind it is clear, especially since the clip’s opening soundtrack is Middle-Eastern music and the scene is set on Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s central square, symbolizing Berlin as one of the places with the highest percentage of immigrants in the country. So, both in terms of frontier history and of seeking to keep out the black ‘other,’ the Cherokee girl stands for a conservative and völkisch notion of peoplehood, and Claudia Roth for liberals who seek to destroy German culture and peoplehood through multiculturalism, as signified by a term currently very popular in these völkisch and xenophobic debates: Volksverräter (roughly: a betrayer of one’s own people/nation).
A few days ago on 3rd December, I have held my last lecture on this trip. While the earlier lectures discussed my work on German perceptions of Native American cultures and promoted the forthcoming book, this talk presented some of my current work on deployed soldiers’ milblogs. This guest lecture was hosted by University of Nebraska, Omaha’s English Department and the Office of Military and Veteran services.
I met Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, who invited me to Omaha, during his Fulbright year at American Studies Leipzig in 2007. Since then, we have kept in close contact and frequently worked together. Omaha is very dear to me, for the friends and colleagues I know here but also because this is where I held my first lecture when my dissertation project took shape in 2007.
Last week’s lecture provided an overview of the interdisciplinary methodology of the project and contextualized Native American military traditions before launching into a close reading of an American soldier’s milblog from Afghanistan. I pointed out different elements of ceremonial storytelling in the interaction between deployed soldiers and civilian audience. Some of these textual elements led back to the presentation on “tribute and memorial posts” I held at the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles. Similar to my reflections on the longue dureé in Indianthusiasm for teaching due to the lectures on Nazis and the GDR that I held over the course of only one weekend in Oklahoma in late October, this lecture helped me approach the topic of death and mourning in milblogs from different angles, discuss it with a diverse audience, and thus extend the scope of my work from the ASA presentation in early November. This widened perspective will help me tackle another chapter of the blog project in the coming year.
Apart from the academic values gained from this final lecture, it was fascinating to observe the environment in which the event took place. The lecture was held at UNO’s Community Engagement Center, a brand-new building dedicated to community outreach. The audience was thus both “gown” and “town,” comprised of students of both English and Native studies courses, veterans, and members of the Omaha community. As my colleagues told me, UNO was recently rated the best four-year college in veteran services by the Military Times. It was thus particularly interesting to observe and discuss veterans’ affairs at this institution. This also brought back discussions and observations from last year’s conferences at UC Santa Barbara and Copenhagen where many discussions and presentations centered around the question of college veteran services, student veterans, and the role of the humanities in veteran reintegration.
Similar questions recurred during the last few days when I met with colleagues and representatives of veteran groups, such as The Mission Continues. The Mission Continues has recently become one of the best-known veteran support groups. They focus on community service and volunteerism as its founders have realized that many veterans are eager to continue serving and that volunteerism, i.e., helping others, helps veterans to help themselves in their efforts to reintegrate into civil society. I became interested in groups like TMC when looking at the warrior philosophy of Native American military traditions and their strong focus on ceremonialism, community relationships, and mutual aid. Native studies scholars argue that “warriorhood” is anchored in perpetual community relationships, while “soldiering” in the ‘Western’ sense is more perceived as playing a social role. The community engagement of The Mission Continues reminds me of relationships in changing tasks (from fighting to, say, charity or care-giving) known from native warrior philosophy.
Since both Native scholars and military psychologists have argued that ceremonialism and community relationships might support the reintegration of non-Native veterans and could play a role in working through their traumatic experiences, I have begun looking beyond milblogs to find other non-Native efforts to implement community and ceremony in my research during this year. The Mission Continues is a very good example for such efforts. Getting together with TMC representatives as well as social sciences scholars from Washington University and Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area helped me explore these veteran groups’ efforts. Their information and advise provided valuable social science perspectives for my project. I will continue to look into this and similar projects, although they are not deployed soldiers’ narratives, to look for ceremonialism and community interaction as ingredients for reintegration.